If in the year 1411 you had been able to circumnavigate the globe, you would have been most impressed by the dazzling civilizations of the Orient. The Forbidden City was under construction in Ming Beijing; in the Near East, the Ottomans were closing in on Constantinople.
By contrast, England would have struck you as a miserable backwater ravaged by plague, bad sanitation and incessant war. The other quarrelsome kingdoms of Western Europe – Aragon, Castile, France, Portugal and Scotland – would have seemed little better. As for fifteenth-century North America, it was an anarchic wilderness compared with the realms of the Aztecs and Incas.
So the question is: If these people had all this knowledge so much longer than the western world, why did the west still outperform them?
Niall Ferguson has an interesting theory: We had six “killer apps” they were missing:
- Competitive environment
- Ethics of work
So while China was united under a single ruler, in Europe rulers and subjects had to compete for resources. Leaps in science led to better understanding of the world, better medical support which led to enough free time and effort to be able to demand democracy. Science couldn’t be “kept in the bottle” because scientists could leave one place and do their work in another. Common religious beliefs did slow that process somewhat but in the end, the forces were too great. Still, religion made people work hard to earn their keep. Consumerism led to efficient ways to produce cheaper goods, and to earn the money to actually buy them.